Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had some stern words for President Donald Trump this week after the administration threatened import taxes on Canadian lumber, but you would never know it from the White House’s statement on the conversation.
That four-sentence, 42-word readout said “it was a very amicable call.” But the tone of a statement from Trudeau’s office suggested otherwise: “The prime minister refuted the baseless allegations by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the decision to impose unfair duties,” according to Ottawa’s readout, which was five times the length of the White House’s.
The contrast between Trump’s and Trudeau’s public statements on the call highlighted an emerging White House trend: Its many short, vague readouts on discussions with foreign leaders are often far less detailed and descriptive than statements put out by the leaders with whom the president speaks.
As a result, reporters covering the White House are often forced to glean details of those diplomatic discussions from statements put out by foreign governments.
Two days before his call with Trudeau, Trump spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The White House’s readout of the call was just two sentences. “The two leaders addressed a range of regional and global issues of mutual concern,” it said.
Abe’s office released a far more detailed account, recalling “an in-depth exchange of opinions on the North Korea situation” that addressed, among other developments, joint naval exercises with the U.S.’s Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group.
Though a source of minor frustration for journalists, the lack of information from the White House has a more troubling effect, experts say: The resulting public reporting on high-level geopolitical discussions is inevitably colored by a non-U.S. perspective on U.S. diplomacy, potentially putting American foreign policy at a strategic information disadvantage.
“If we’re only given two sentences and then another country, the statement from them has multiple paragraphs, we have to assume that that potentially has a spin and there’s a reason that they want to highlight certain elements of that,” said Lynn Walsh, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Trudeau, for instance, made sure to specifically criticize recent Trump administration trade actions aimed at lumber and dairy products. His office’s statement derided them as “unfair” efforts to undermine a free-trade agreement that already “heavily favors the U.S.” Canada, Trudeau said, would “vigorously defend” its exporters’ interests, “as we have successfully done in all past lumber disputes with the U.S.”
The White House’s statement made no attempt to defend U.S. trade actions. “The two leaders discussed the dairy trade in Wisconsin, New York State, and various other places,” it said simply. “They also discussed lumber coming into the United States.”
The contrast between the two statements illustrated the White House’s unnecessary handicapping of its own position on major diplomatic issues, Walsh said.
“The public now is receiving more information from other countries and other countries’ public information officers and with the perspective of other countries,” Walsh said in an interview. “They’re getting more information from them than they are from their own leaders.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on its often-scant readouts of the president’s discussions with foreign officials.
In some instances, there is parity between the scope of information provided by offices on both ends of the White House’s diplomatic exchanges. In an extreme case, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office appears to have plagiarized a White House statement on his Feb. 7 conversation with Trump.
Erdogan’s statement, released a day after the White House’s, copied a number of phrases verbatim, including references to their “shared commitment to combatting terrorism in all its forms” and U.S. “support to Turkey as a strategic partner and NATO ally.” Statements from the White House and Erdogan’s office on an April discussion between the two leaders were also strikingly similar.
But in a number of other instances, White House readouts on the president’s discussions with foreign leaders have been entirely devoid of information, even as foreign governments, including some with records of hostility to press and speech freedoms, provide extensive details on those discussions.
When Trump spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping this month, the White House released a two-sentence, 28-word statement that described the conversation simply as “a very productive call.”
An account from Chinese state-run media was far more extensive. The government’s Xinhua News Agency released a 16-paragraph statement totalling more than 400 words. It detailed the Chinese position on North Korea, Syria, and a host of more general issues.
Beyond the disadvantage that the White House’s brevity imposes on U.S. communications efforts, Walsh said it is simply embarrassing that governments that don’t share an American commitment to the free flow of information would be so much more forthcoming about high-level diplomatic talks.
“When you see the comparison between the two statements, it was embarrassing as a country that prides ourselves on access and freedom, yet we’re not really showing that in our actions right now,” Walsh said.
She suspects that the refusal to release more information is part of the White House’s general hostility to the press, which Trump, as president, has dubbed “the enemy of the people.” But the real loser, Walsh said, is the American public.
“The information belongs to them,” she said. “Journalists are collecting this information on behalf of the public. I don’t think the administration is thinking about that aspect.”